Porn fighters ridiculed by defenders

By Michele Landsberg
Toronto Star
November 6, 1990

An alien visitor to planet Earth might easily conclude that pornography is the official religion of North America. No other subject is so sacred, so protected, so vociferously guarded by official and unofficial defenders.

A hush surrounds pornograpny like the hush of the temple.

Those who are revolted by it avert their eyes and pass by in fearful silence. Those who dare to oppose it openly are howled down.

Even the fundamentalist U.S. legislators, attacking photographer Robert Mapplethorp, were not really going after pornography, though clever spin-doctoring made us think so. Their real target was ideological: government funding of the arts. Meanwhile, they have let porn's free enterprisers flourish untouched.

It's a $10 billion industry for its sleazy chieftains with their legions of pushers, handlers and distributors, and a nickel-and-dime living for most of the pathetic women who are its raw material. Coercion is a normal part of the trade. Yet, apologists for the industry, ardently protecting these ruthless pimps, use high-flown slogans and banners: Civil liberties. Free enterprise. Free speech.

Sheer revulsion also works in their favor. Who wants to think about it, write about it, LOOK at it? Civilized adults prefer not to think of the fact that pornography, with its ritualized message of male dominance and female subjugation, is the universal form of sex education for boys in North America.

Free speech defenders, in particular, can be counted on to deny that the constantly repeated rape imagery of pornography has any "scientifically provable" effect on its consumers. Free speechers puzzle me. If "speech" (including the pictures and movies that use real women and children) is so precious to them that all forms of it must be defended at all costs, how can they then ask us to believe that it has no real impact? They would be more honest to admit pornography, like all speech, has its effects, but that they care more about freedom of expression than they do about the possible damage to the lives of women and children.

And it's clear that porn's message is getting through. In the last couple of decades, violent sadomasochism has seeped up from the underground rivers of pornography to become an accepted form of "daring" self-expression in advertising and mainstream movies.

What interests me is how pornography and its defenders always get away with depicting themselves as th victims of the prudish establishment, when, in fact, THEY are the establishment.

A current small example:

In North Bay, a businesswoman who dared to challenge a downtown strip joint became the ridiculed and misrepresented butt of the establishment, including the mayor, city council and the local newspaper, the North Bay Nugget.

Valerie Smith, who owns an antique store, felt that "exotic dancing" at the nearby Parkview Hotel was creating an unsavory atmosphere in the downtown shopping district. Safety, not morality, was Smith's concern. A worker at a North Bay battered women's shelter agreed. "Time and time again," she told city council, "women have whispered, blurted and sobbed out the details of their partner's behavior after the partner has returned from watching 'exotic dancing'."

The local women who appeared at city council to ask for the bylaw banishing the strippers to the outskirts of town were intimidated and insulted by a jeering crowd of strip club owners, patrons and performers. Major Stan Lawlor chortled, joked and whistled a stripper's theme song. Alderman Don King sneered at the protesting women that they must be jealous because he wouldn't want to see THEM strip.

North Bay Nugget columnist Gary Hogg though it hilarious to suggest that "guys get all drunk and worked up then they leave the bar like beasts in heat seeking she-meat, right?"

Nugget columnist Ken Stange became so emotional about the issue that he returned to it compulsively again and again, insisting the women and their male supporters were prudes who wanted to impose their own morality on others, put underpants on naked statues and run people out of the business of "alternative art forms."

North Bay City Council finally wriggled out of its dilemma by giving the downtown strip joints a two-year lease on life. After that, it says, it will ban them.

Valerie Smith has complained to the Ontario Press Council that the Nugget's male columnists consistently misrepresented her position and subjected her to public derision.

Ridicule and distortion are an extremely effective means of silencing women who want to voice their feelings of outrage, fear and depression about pornography's woman-hating message. Next Tuesday, I'll tell you about one organization -- now nearly silenced for lack of funding -- which offeres a constructive way to combat ponography's grip on our imagination.